1. ‘Racial Poisons’ and ‘Foetal Alcohol Syndrome’: Eugenics, Epigenetics and Pre-Natal Child Welfare

Today I tuned in to a BBC Radio Five Live phone-in debate on foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). This was in response to the news of a recent compensation claim: a child was born with brain injuries and facial deformities as a result of her mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy. After considering advances in the field of epigenetics as well as the history of the eugenics movement in Britain, I ask: should it just be post-conception we discuss or do our lifestyle choices influence the health of our children before they are even conceived?

‘Foetal alcohol syndrome compensation case goes before Court of Appeal,’ The Independent (4 November 2014), [http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/foetal-alcohol-syndrome-compensation-case-goes-before-court-of-appeal-9839422.html].

‘Foetal alcohol syndrome compensation case goes before Court of Appeal,’
The Independent (4 November 2014), [http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/foetal-alcohol-syndrome-compensation-case-goes-before-court-of-appeal-9839422.html].

During pregnancy, is alcohol abuse also child abuse? With FAS resulting in a range of debilitating conditions, including heavy autism, organ dysfunction and susceptibility to alcohol and addiction, the radio debate questioned: should heavy drinking during pregnancy be criminalized? Listeners were somewhat polarised ranging from ‘it didn’t do any harm to my children’ and ‘if they ban drinking during pregnancy what will be next? We’ve all become so authoritarian. Dare I say, Orwellian?’ to asking ‘what’s the difference between drinking during pregnancy and injecting a new born baby with alcohol?’ While public opinion on FAS is by no means uniform, it forces discussion on the relationship between alcoholism and poverty, welfare, reproductive freedom and crime, to name a few.

A Guardian article from earlier in the year reported of a similar case in which a local authority claimed that “the mother’s actions in continuing to drink while pregnant constituted poisoning.” In the early 1900s, the assumed impact of the environment, lifestyle and various ‘poisons’ on future generations – from morphine and alcohol to lead and venereal disease – was an equally polarised debate. This was especially so within the British Eugenics Society.

Many British eugenicists, like President of the Eugenics Society and son of Charles Darwin, Leonard Darwin, believed in the theory of biological determinism. With the idea of ‘like produces like’ reinforcing the assumed class/intelligence structure of society and securing the younger Darwin as one of the nation’s biological elite, he – and many other eugenicists – believed no amount of boozing could affect his prestigious seed. However, not all eugenicists were informed by such cultural and racial stereotypes alone (or at all), something made clear in neo-Lamarckian discussions on alcohol abuse. It was asked, to what extent did certain lifestyle choices (e.g. alcohol, morphine and venereal disease) result in inheritable conditions?

Caleb Saleeby (1878-1940) [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caleb_Saleeby#mediaviewer/File:Caleb_Saleeby.jpg]

Caleb Saleeby (1878-1940)

Pre- and post-natal child welfare was the centrepiece of many a neo-Lamarckian eugenicist’s ideology. In the 1910s, a leading member of the eugenics movement, Caleb Saleeby, referred to alcohol as a type of “poison” for the next generation. For Saleeby, it was a “racial poison”. One of Saleeby’s chief concerns was the impact alcohol, and other “racial poisons”, had on the “germ cells” (reproductive cells). If ‘taken’ in large quantities both during pregnancy and, significantly, before conception, in the latter case whether by the father or the mother, it was believed that alcohol (and morphine, lead or venereal disease for that matter) would harm to the genetic constitution of the child, and the child’s children (and the child’s children’s children etc). In short, for Saleeby, – and others including A.F. Tredgold, E.W. MacBride and Mary Scharleib – the abuse of alcohol during or before pregnancy, caused a process of ‘germ-weakening’ with disastrous implications for the future of the British race. This idea impacted wider society through, for instance, the introduction of variants of ‘racial hygiene’ to the school curriculum in the 1900s, groups such as the Society for the Study of Inebriety (1900s-1930s) and sustained support in Britain for the American prohibition laws of 1924-1933.

After the (re-)discovery of Mendel’s laws of heredity in 1900, neo-Lamarckian theories of acquired characteristics such as these were derided for much of the following century. Recently, however, this view has been challenged. Scientists, including Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb, authors of Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioural and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (2005), have argued that emerging epigenetic theories are neo-Lamarckian in nature. This new discipline suggests that factors from mental trauma to diet and exercise may result in inheritable changes in gene behaviour (DNA methylation). Studies into famine in nineteenth century Sweden, the children of Holocaust survivors and pregnant 9/11 victims, as well as genetic susceptibility to cancer, for example, all indicate that these changes can last for several generations. Epigenetic studies have already prompted several television documentaries, such as the BBC’s ‘The Ghost in Your Genes’ (2005), as well as prolonged debates on national radio, and headlines in newspapers such as ‘Don’t blame your genes…change them!,’ ‘Why DNA isn’t your destiny,’ ‘Why Granddad is making our babies ill’ and ‘Smoking “scars” DNA and increases risk of obesity.’

‘How does epigenetics shape life? (17 April, 2012), [http://allotrope.fieldofscience.com/2012/04/how-does-epigenetics-shape-life.html].

‘How does epigenetics shape life? (17 April, 2012), [http://allotrope.fieldofscience.com/2012/04/how-does-epigenetics-shape-life.html].

How do these discoveries relate to foetal alcohol syndrome? Drinking during pregnancy may become criminalized as a form of pre-natal child abuse. Recent studies, including ‘Epigenetics – Beyond the Genome in Alcoholism’ (Starkman, Sakharkar and Pandey, 2012) have suggested that prolonged alcohol abuse can result in inheritable changes, including susceptibility to alcohol addiction. As epigenetics becomes more established will future Five Live debates bring into question peoples’ lifestyles before conception as well as during gestation? Will such debates become ingrained in popular culture as was the case with IVF and pre-natal screening? If one’s environment and lifestyle can have a dramatic influence on the behaviour of their genes, we can make the safe assumption that although now we are discussing the influence of alcohol on the growing foetus as a form of ‘poisoning’, soon enough we may be talking in terms of pre-conception child abuse.

Dr. Patrick T. Merricks                                                                                                          5.11.2014



C. Saleeby, ‘Racial Poisons, II: Alcohol,’ The Eugenics Review 2, 1 (April 1910), 30-52.


F. Khan, ‘Epigenetics Research, “The Culture of Poverty,” and “The Bell Curve”,’ Neuroethics & Law Blog (26th October 2010), [http://kolber.typepad.com/ethics_law_blog/2010/10/whos-your-favorite-person-in-the-world-and-what-do-you-love-about-them.html, accessed: 5 November 2014].

K.L. Macintosh, ‘Brave New Eugenics: Regulating Assisted Reproductive Technologies in the Name of Better Babies,’ Journal of Law, Technology & Policy (2010), 257-310.

M.A. Rothstein, Y. Cai and E. Marchant, ‘The Ghost in Our Genes: Legal and Ethical Implications of Epigenetics,’ Health Matrix 19, 1 (2009), 1-62.



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